Papiamentu should be a structural part of reading instruction on ABC islands

- EN - NL

On the islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, children until recently only learned to read in a language foreign to them: Dutch. It was not until 2001 that their native language, Papiamentu, was also introduced as a language of instruction in primary schools. Sociologist and educational expert Melissa van der Elst-Koeiman studied the bilingual reading development of children in the senior years of primary school on the islands. "It is important to use Papiamentu to teach reading in primary education." She will defend her PhD thesis at Radboud University on 12 June.

Most children first learn to read in their native language, but until 2001, this was not the case on the Leeward Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Until then, the school system was dominated by Dutch, the language of the former coloniser, while most children on the islands have as their native language the Spanish-Portuguese-based creole language Papiamentu. "This meant that children were learning to read in a language they did not speak at home and rarely heard in the media or outside school," says sociologist and educational expert Melissa van der Elst-Koeiman.

It was not until 2001 that Papiamentu was introduced as a second language of instruction in primary schools. This was done among other things to improve reading outcomes. Since then, two sequences of instruction have emerged in schools: some schools start with reading instruction in Papiamentu and later on add Dutch; others do it the other way round. "Since Papiamentu was only recently introduced as a language of instruction, little is known about its effects on reading development," says Van der Elst-Koeiman.

Native language helps

She studied at 11 primary schools on Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao how well children learn to read in Papiamentu and Dutch if they start out in one or the other language. The first study involved 293 children from Group 6 (9- to 10-year-olds). The study measured the children’s cognitive-linguistic skills, such as vocabulary, grammar and working memory, as well as their technical and comprehension reading skills. The second and third studies followed the same children (a slightly smaller group, due to Covid-19 dropout) until Group 8, looking at their reading development.

The results show that children perform better in their native language Papiamentu than in Dutch on almost all tested items, regardless of whether they first learned to read in Dutch or in Papiamentu. "It is important to use Papiamentu to teach reading in primary education, because it helps children to better understand what they are reading, and also stimulates their Dutch language development."

Complex challenge

At the same time, an early start in Dutch was found to be essential for the development of reading comprehension in that language: children who learned to read in Dutch were better at reading comprehension in Dutch in Groups 6 to 8 than children who learned to read in Papiamentu. "Reading instruction on the islands poses a complex challenge: how to improve Dutch reading comprehension without neglecting Papiamentu?" says Van der Elst-Koeiman. "More research is needed, but my research shows the added value of structurally including Papiamentu in the reading curriculum. More material should therefore be developed for this purpose, both reading books and teaching materials. It is important to invest in this."